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First School Town Hall Meeting Filled With Frustration

— Concerned parents in the San Diego Unified School District expressed their frustration, anger and hope yesterday for the coming school year. They were at the first of five town hall meetings on impending budget cuts. The forums set a precedent for a district that’s facing a dire financial situation next year.

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Concerned parents in the San Diego Unified School District expressed their frustration, anger and hope yesterday for the coming school year. They were at the first of five town hall meetings on impending budget cuts. KPBS Education Reporter Ana Tintocalis says the forums set a precedent for a district that’s facing a dire financial situation next year:

It’s a school night at Serra High School in Tierrasanta. About 100 parents have traded an evening with their kids for a night with district officials to talk about budget cuts. An overhead projector displays charts and graphs conveying one thing: the district is in tough financial shape.

School trustee Katherine Nakamura led the meeting. She represents the northeastern side of the district.

“It's information we really didn't have before,” Nakamura said. “We're trying to be as transparent, as open, and as accessible as possible. That's what this here is about tonight.”

San Diego Unified faces a budget situation where it has to cut $200 million from its $1.2 billion budget next year. That means district officials have to cut twice as deep as they did last year.

Earlier this week a special budget taskforce came up with some suggestions. They included scaling back on kindergarten education. Instead of having full-day kindergarten classes, toddlers would go to school for a half-day. Parents like Colby Filson came out strong against that idea.

“I know there would be a great decrease in enrollment were you to go to half-day kindergarten when the surrounding districts are continuing full-day,” Filson said. “As much as I love the school that we attend currently, we would definitely consider another district. I think there are a lot of families that would feel that same way.”

District officials say the other option would be to increase kindergarten classes to maybe 30 students, but parents complained about that idea too.

One possible solution parents did like was for San Diego Unified to charge for bus transportation. School districts such as Poway have reverted to that option. Parents like Lisa Diliberti say families who can afford it, should take the hit.

“I'm saying a family of four that's earning $120,000 a year ought to have the opportunity to pay for buses to keep their schools open,” Diliberti said.

But critics and even Interim School Superintendent William Kowba say programs have already been scaled back, and this year the district will have to cut people. Last year the district did not issue pink slips to teachers thanks to a combination of short-term budget fixes.

But the district may not be so lucky this year. A decline in student enrollment, fewer federal stimulus dollars and fewer one-time budget fixes mean San Diego Unified will have to cut deep.

Parents here say they don’t support teacher layoffs or salary cuts. But PTA leader Margie Fish they would be in favor of making teachers pay more for their health care and benefits.

“I think all parents put (teachers) in high regard but (teachers) also have to help with the pain with the cuts,” Fish said. “Parents are losing their jobs and having furlough days and I think, at this point, the teachers need to realize that.”

And parent Cindy McIntyre says parents need to realize that what is really needed to fix the entire problem is serious budget reform in Sacramento.

“We as parents and teachers need to talk to Sacramento. The board can only do what Sacramento gives to them with the money. So our hands are all tied. Until Sacramento gets their acts together and California loosens up regulations to get businesses back here and paying taxes, we're not going anywhere,” McIntyre said.

The district has no time to waste. School officials have to come up with some solid ideas by the end of January. That’s when Governor Schwarzenegger will unveil a new budget that’s expected to contain cuts to education.

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